North Korea’s ‘rational’ belligerence

A version of this article was originally published in Asian Currents, the e-bulletin of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.  See: Habib, B. (2013). “North Korea’s ‘rational’ belligerence.” Asian Currents. June 2013 (90). pp. 18-21.

There may be much more behind North Korea’s rhetorical storm than meets the eye.

The hostile posturing of the North Korean leadership is decipherable if located within the context of its symbiotic national security and economic development goals.  Further nuclear or missile tests would strongly indicate the North Korean leadership’s intention to accelerate the maturation of its nuclear and missile programs, with a fully operation nuclear deterrent in place to provide the umbrella under which new economic measures can be rolled out.  The present moment represents an inflection point marking the end of Kim Jong Il-era muddle through and the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s determined and pro-active regime consolidation phase.

Courtesy Global Times.

Pyongyang’s rhetorical storm has been well publicised and need not be rehashed here.  These statements are indicative of an increasingly aggressive stream of rhetoric and posturing by the North Korean government, even by its own lofty standards of belligerent hyperbole.

My initial thought was that North Korea’s fiery rhetoric was another coercive bargaining episode.  Pyongyang has a history using coercive bargaining tactics in its dealings with the international community, a strategy that utilises deliberate, directed provocations to obtain material rewards or diplomatic concessions in exchange for de-escalation.  The Kim regime’s present outburst may be an attempt to force the United States into diplomatic negotiations to roll back the sanctions regime.

Pyongyang’s rhetorical flourish may have been sign that international financial and economic sanctions levied against the regime have touched a nerve.  UN Security Council resolutions 2087 and 2094, while relatively weak at face value, are an accretion of targeted restrictions and injunctions building upon the pre-existing sanctions regime imposed through previous UNSC resolutions.  The aim of these measures is to strangle the revenue streams that fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferation activities, along with the matériel required for their development.  North Korea’s recent outbursts may be an indication that this strangulation effort is beginning to impact tangibly on Pyongyang’s ability to fund its nuclear and missile programs.

Upon reflection, however, the coercive bargaining hypothesis may not be as convincing in this case as it first appears.  Nuclear weapons development lends itself to coercive bargaining escalations.  Pyongyang has leveraged developmental milestones and violated proliferation safeguards and reprocessing freezes as deliberate escalations for crisis bargaining.  However, coercive bargaining loses its power once a nuclear program matures.  I see two reasons for this: (1) with an essentially complete nuclear weapons deterrent, there are no more developmental thresholds over which to bargain, and (2) with the proliferation finish line in sight, the North Korean government is likely to see greater strategic incentives in realising full nuclear deployment as opposed to extracting relatively minor concessions from an unfinished developmental program.

Since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, the question of Kim Jong-un’s grasp on the leadership credentials has hung like a cloud over North Korean foreign policy behaviour.  Many foreign observers continue to ask whether Kim Jong-un is completely in charge, is a figurehead or is involved in a contest for power with other actors.

The question is not without merit.  Kim Jong-un needs to have established a network of institutional attachments and personal loyalties as the foundation of his claims to the leadership.  Potential succession candidates need to establish their own institutional attachments and personal loyalties as the foundation of their claims to future leadership. For a smooth transition to take place, Kim Jong-un needs to be acceptable to a sizeable majority of the high-level elites, particularly in the KPA.

As has been suggested of the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010, the April 2012 satellite launch may represent an attempt to bolster Kim Jong-un’s succession prospects.  Such bold provocations may have been deemed necessary to secure institutional support for Kim Jong-un within the military, in the absence of a long grooming period in which the youthful new leader could cultivate a support base.  Pyongyang’s rhetorical storm circa 2013 could be interpreted in this context.

Kim Jong Un appears to have transitioned smoothly into the leadership in 2012 and enjoys a solid grip on power.  Some observations are worth noting: Kim Jong Un is a charismatic figure who presents as a more confident public figure than his father.  While Kim Jong Il rarely spoke in public at all during his two decades in power, Kim Jong Un has delivered a number of speeches and made numerous public appearances.  The Respected Leader even looks remarkably like a young Kim Il Sung, a striking resemblance which is being utilised in regime propaganda.  The youth and charisma of Kim Jong Un may indeed tap into a broader lust for generational change among the wider population, a thirst for something new after the privations of the Arduous March period and ongoing economic stagnation under Songun politics.

It is useful to step back from the whirlwind of recent developments to place the current situation in the broader context of North Korea’s regime survival strategy based on external security and domestic economic development.  The over-riding priority underpinning North Korea foreign policy remains regime survival and the perpetuation of the Kim family dynasty.  On the surface, it would therefore seem counter-intuitive for the Kim regime to antagonise the United States and South Korea to the brink of a war that they would almost certainly lose.

Here one needs to understand the unique logic of North Korean foreign policy.  To this end, Pyongyang sees hard military power as the only reliable means of guaranteeing its security in what it perceives as a hostile strategic environment.  North Korea’s foreign policy behaviour generally exhibits ultra-realist tendencies based on Songun (military-first) politics, emphasising the utility of military force as its only credible security guarantee in what it perceives to be a strategically hostile environment.  Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are the ultimate practical expressions of this world-view.

The regime also maintains an explicitly stated objective of transforming North Korea into a “strong and prosperous country” through a program of economic development.  This development program may include moves toward the implementation of incremental economic restructuring.

Top-down changes to the economy during the Kim Jong Il era were geared toward regaining control of the economy after the collapse of the command system in the mid-1990s.  Many of the economic concessions made by the regime in 2002 merely ratified grassroots entrepreneurialism that had taken root during the famine.  Since that time, Kim Jong Il’s government issued several edicts rolling back those concessions in an attempt to restore economic centralisation and consolidate the position of the regime by forcing minor market operators out of business.

If not the inexorable path toward full marketisation, what then might North Korea’s economic transformation begin to look like?  Two key developments have occurred under Kim Jong Un’s leadership: (1) a burgeoning export trade in natural resources, and (2) hints at tentative structural changes to specific sectors of the economy.

The DPRK has a rich endowment of mineral resources including rare earth metals and a substantial endowment of anthracite and bituminous coal, the two highest grades of coal.  Indeed the resources sector is one of the few non-illicit sectors where North Korea has a comparative advantage.  Chinese state-owned companies began growing investment in North Korea’s mining and resource sector from 2005, accelerating rapidly from 2008.  The timing of this acceleration coincides with a renewed focus from the North Korean government in developing the mining sector.

Signs of structural changes to the North Korean economy are perceptible but less obvious.  In the agricultural sector, the 6.28 policy reportedly announced in June 2012 called for a trial of a new quota system in which farmers in Ryanggang Province were entitled to keep or sell thirty percent of the annual production quota.  Kim Jong Un’s 2013 New Year’s address emphasised developing the country’s scientific and technological capabilities to “fan the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century.”  North Korea’s forgotten special economic zones at Rason and Sinuiju are being rejuvenated (with mixed results) as the government seeks the benefits of foreign investment while simultaneously quarantining the risk of political contamination of the broader population through economy-wide marketisation.

Pak Pong Ju’s re-appointment to the position of Cabinet Premier after a six year hiatus fuelled speculation that the Kim government has a long-term plan for economic restructuring.  Pak earned a reputation as a reformer among the DPRK elite during his previous stint as Cabinet Premier, when he oversaw a number of changes to the North Korean economy.

North Korea’s era of “muddling through” appears to be over under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.  Rightly or wrongly, his government has noticeably quickened the pace of decisive policy decision-making in pursuit of a simultaneous nuclear security and economic development program.  A fourth nuclear test and/or further missile tests in the coming months would be a further indication that the North Korean leadership intends to accelerate the proliferation pace in order to the bring the nuclear and missile programs to maturity, with a fully operation nuclear deterrent in place to provide the umbrella under which new economic measures can be rolled out.

Adopting a big-picture perspective on the current crisis helps to put North Korea’s posturing into a rational context.  Contrary to popular imagination, the leadership in Pyongyang are not stupid.  Their actions follow a logic consistent with their unique worldview and the prerogatives of their regime survival strategy based on symbiotic nuclear security and economic development.

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